@MovieJay Feels Like A Kid Again With A Backstage Pass To Wonderful Thanks to Being Elmo
I grew up with Sesame Street during the day and The Muppet Show at night. Although it was clear to see those thin wires helping Kermit‘s arms to express themselves, it was also quite clear to me that Kermit was his own man, uhhh…frog that is, and that he expressed himself on his own without anyone’s help. It simply never crossed my mind to doubt that hardcore belief that I had instilled in myself: Kermit is real, even if his arms need assistance. And whose arms wouldn’t? He was the only character working both during the day and at night!
By the time The Muppet Movie came along there were no more wires, setting the Muppets free to play guitar like Kermit did in the iconic pond with his hit “Rainbow Connection”, or to ride bikes the way they did in The Great Muppet Caper leaving us kids in awe. How the heck did they do that?!
That sense of wonderment we get as a member of the audience watching the artistry and imagination within the Jim Henson universe is something that seems to have been built into Kevin Clash, a puppeteer and the Muppeteer better known as the voice of Elmo.
Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey is a mostly nice and fuzzy general interest doc with a much better-than-average amount of filmed footage from Clash’s upbringing in a middle-class African-American home in the suburbs of Baltimore through the late 60’s and into the 70’s. It doesn’t get too deep in either his personal life or with its behind-the-scenes footage of how Muppets are brought to life, but what we do get from both is enough to stoke our imaginations and our sense of nostalgia for that period on TV. A time when variety shows and not “reality” shows were all the rage allowing for funny skits, musical numbers, and famous guest appearances.
Kevin Clash was all about puppets as a young boy and when Sesame Street came along he knew he was meant for that world. The desire to create a Muppet and express himself through it was so strong that as he stared at his father’s long fur-coat with its plush dark inner-lining, he couldn’t help himself. With a pair of scissors he cut into it with the bi-product turning out to be a puppet of a monkey. Like most kids, it was only after he finished the task that a dread crept up in him at the thought of what his father would do. “What’s his name?”, asked his father. “Mondi”, uttered Kevin. “Next time, just ask”, answered his father.
Using his mother’s clothesline outside, Kevin would put on shows for the neighborhood kids. In one of the many delightful home videos that are over 30 years old, we see Kevin sewing up one of his creations and toying around with mannerisms and voices. Some kids made fun of Kevin for “playing with dolls”, but that teasing stopped after he scored a job with the local TV station where he now had a platform to showcase his characters and more importantly his talent.
We then follow Kevin through a series of lucky breaks as he gets put up in a hotel in New York City eventually working with Jim Henson Productions on Sesame Street. The footage from the show at the time is marvelous and the real eye-opening stuff is watching all the work the humans have to do to get things just right. We watch their arms in a shot while their heads are bowed to the ground watching monitors of their arms on-camera and often with a second human moving the Muppet’s arms or controlling its legs.
Though Kevin found himself living his dream, he hadn’t settled into any one distinguishing role or character on the show until the Muppet we now know as Elmo was literally thrown at him by a colleague who just didn’t know what to do with the little red furry guy. The footage of Elmo on TV before he was Elmo is very funny stuff as the original puppeteer played him a low, gravelly voice.
Armed with opportunity, Kevin took Elmo back home to Baltimore on a family visit that weekend and drew inspiration from a mix of the small kids he had been observing playing on the block and moreso, his parents when it all clicked: he would make Elmo a younger Muppet with the main characteristic being the need to give and receive tons of love and affection. Elmo took off and with it so did Kevin, a shy and quiet boy who grew up to be able to channel that innocence and wonder into one of the most successful and beloved Muppets of all time. You may recall that wicked Tickle Me Elmo craze about a decade or so ago as people trampled over each other at Christmas time to procure them.
Kevin Clash is presented as a shy, precocious young man in his youth, and a contented middle-aged man today who knew early on what his dream was and found that he was lucky enough to not only dream it but to live it as well. Jim Henson had been his hero growing up, and now in his semi-retirement he has the memory of working alongside him and being able to say that he was his friend.
Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey will work with grown adults as a wonderful piece of nostalgia, and it should have the effect of helping to continue to inspire the imaginations of youngsters.
Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey ***